Piranha (1978)

Piranha (1978)

“The water is filled with carnivorous fish: piranha.”

When an insurance investigator (Heather Menzies) teams up with an alcoholic recluse (Bradford Dillman) to determine what happened to a pair of teenagers who mysteriously disappeared, they learn about a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) overseeing a government-sponsored project to breed lethal piranhas, which wreak havoc when they’re released into the nearby river and beyond — including a summer camp and a water resort.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Steele Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Dick Miller Films
  • Horror Films
  • Joe Dante Films
  • John Sayles Films
  • Keenan Wynn Films
  • Kevin McCarthy Films
  • Killer Animals
  • Scientists
  • Summer Camp

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary rather uncharitably argues that “Roger Corman’s low-budget Jaws variation, directed by Joe Dante and scripted by John Sayles,” “should be condensed to 15 minutes.” He writes that “it becomes annoying how Dante and Sayles put the usual roadblocks in the path of Dillman and Menzies to kill screen time,” given that “there can be only one attack at the camp and one at the resort because after that nobody would go back into the water” — and “as it is, those two attacks, which should take about 10 seconds each since the swimmers are about 10 feet from land, go on forever.” He further argues that while “Paul Bartel, as the taskmaster camp head:

… and Dick Miller, as the money-hungry resort owner:

… are funny,” their “broad humor doesn’t mesh with the tongue-in-cheek satirical upstream story [?] with Dillman and Menzies,” and it “should all have been played straight.”

I think Peary is being overly harsh on this flick, which effectively builds off of Jaws while offering plenty of genuine chills and thrills. The idea of genetically modified fish with teeth swarming in the water is enough to terrify me — and it’s pretty ridiculous to complain that swimmers would get to shore within 10 seconds if they’re being attacked and bitten to death by ravenous hordes of critters. Meanwhile, plenty of authentic suspense is built into Sayles’s screenplay — i.e., when the raft Menzies and Dillman are using to flee starts unraveling due to the piranhas eating away at its bindings:

… and when Dillman is racing against time to prevent a dam operator from releasing the water:

… and all the sequences in which innocent swimmers (including plenty of kids) are about be swarmed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of suspenseful moments

  • An effective horror film score

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.


2 thoughts on “Piranha (1978)

  1. ⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    Witty, funny, effective sci-fi horror that is better received these days (Roger Ebert had it as a Dog of the Week); that said Leonard Maltin always rated it. Lots of nice touches and grace notes and the leads are good value. Good fun but not a must see film.

  2. Not must-see, but Dante / horror fans will want to check it out.

    Sayles (who has a cameo role as a soldier) whipped up a nifty If (naturally) preposterous plot which Dante then took very seriously, throwing off most of (what would become) his trademark humor (though he manages to lightly pepper some in) in the service of a more-traditional horror film (evidenced mostly by way of crackerjack editing).

    I agree that Peary is very harsh on this film. (He also appears to be expecting too much logic from a film of this sort.) In his defense, however – if Peary saw this on release, this was very early in Dante’s career (it was his second film) but even his debut (‘Hollywood Boulevard’) revealed Dante as a director with a funny bone. As I stated above, Dante *did* pretty much play things straight with ‘Piranha’ – but, throughout his career, the director would always play a unique balancing game with his audiences, combining his brand of playful ‘commentary’ with fright.

    Of particular note among the cast… certain actors doing nice turns in smaller roles: Richard Deacon, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele (who gets the eerie final line in close-up), the ubiquitous Miller, Bartel, Belinda Balaski and McCarthy (whose role affords him a bit of a reference to his iconic performance in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’).

    Composer Pino Donaggio (fresh off of ‘Carrie’) added an evocative score.

Leave a Reply